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Is the Global Perception of Risk Destroying Play Opportunities for Children?

By Blair Barrows

An alumna of the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, Blair Barrows recently spent a year traveling the world to study the relationship between child play and education. In the U.S., legal fear and risk aversion have engendered increasing restrictions on children’s ability to explore and experiment freely in their environments. Blair’s story shows why it doesn't have to be this way.

In 2012 I was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant for independent study outside of the United States. Through the Fellowship, I planned to explore classrooms that utilize play as a learning tool in South Africa, the UK, Finland, Italy, Germany, India, and New Zealand. At the time, I had no idea how much I would learn about the global play world.

Although I knew that the concept of the “bubble wrapped child” was growing in the U.S., I did not realize how much we do not let our children do until I observed alternatives other countries. While exploring Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Environmental, and Holistic education, I saw children, as young as three years old, using knives, carving wood, manning a saw, climbing trees on school property, getting rough in sports, and playing freely in and outside of the classroom at school. Giving children the opportunity to engage in self-driven free play meant that the children would encounter risky situations. In the eyes of these schools, allowing children to experience risk helped the children to handle risk better in the future. For example, if a child is taught how to use a pocketknife correctly at an early age, then he/she is less likely to use one recklessly later in life. In many of the schools that I worked with, the teachers, administration, and parents were confident with the decision to let children experience risk because they understood the rewards. Schools that embodied free play also embraced risk. Reflecting on educational and play trends in the U.S., I began to realize that play was being removed from schools because play had become associated with fear and danger.

When I was not in a classroom, I learned about local organizations that supported play, play advocates, and government initiatives to create more play opportunities. These organizations and personnel understood that the words “risk” and “play” were becoming synonymous, and they wanted to change parents’ and school’s opinions. One such movement that I fell in love with is the Adventure Playground. Adventure Playgrounds, which have been around for a number of decades, capture the pure essence of free play because they allow children to literally create their own play environment using the loose pieces around the playground. Originally founded in the United Kingdom, Adventure Playgrounds can now be found throughout Europe. Often, these playgrounds would allow children to build, on-site, their own structures with nails, hammers, and wood. I observed children grinning with joy as they described a fort they had built, relay race they had organized, or game that they had created. And despite popular belief, each playground organization that I interviewed said that they hardly had any serious injuries. Children who come to the playgrounds understand the importance of safety when working with construction materials and navigating construction sites. Although a few Adventure Playgrounds exist in the U.S., I fear that the movement may never grow because people would not be able to see past the potential risks associated with them. However, if Americans were able to look past the risk, they would see what I saw—happy and confident children.

The last country that I traveled to was New Zealand and, unfortunately, I saw just how much the global trend of risk aversion had affected a country that prided itself on being a “barefoot culture” and popular extreme sports destination. A local play advocate explained that risk aversion is quickly growing in New Zealand. At the time of my interview, July 2013, New Zealand did not have what he referred to as a “suing problem” because it was illegal to sue someone over an incident such as falling on a playground, and therefore, disputes were handled much more on a personal level. This lack of litigation allowed free play to thrive and encouraged parents to let their children be involved in play at home and at school. However, he told me that New Zealand was beginning to change. Schools were tightening down on which games were allowed at recess, parents were supervising their children more, and the “barefoot culture” was being exchanged for a more rigid educational structure. Our conversation showed me just how much the fear of encountering potential risky situations had crept into international policy. When a country without a needless lawsuit problem was succumbing to the social pressures of limiting risk, and thus free play, had the idea of the “bubble wrapped child” gotten out of hand?

Originally, I had hoped to explore the relationship between play and education; however, on my journey I discovered so much more about the importance of play and the growing threats against it. Children’s play opportunities should extend beyond the walls of the classroom, yet schools are cutting out programs left and right. Now that children are seeking play elsewhere, parents and communities are becoming concerned that their play may be too risky. Many play advocates and researchers that I interviewed agreed that in the long run, we are harming our children. In order to create a generation of children who can appropriately analyze risk for themselves, without adult intervention, children must be given more chances to play freely. Through changing the perceptions of what risk and play mean, I believe that more play opportunities can return to schools, streets, backyards, and playgrounds.

If you have comments or questions for Blair, you can reach her at sblairbarrows (at) gmail.com.